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Op-Ed: Want to fight climate change and drought at the same time? Bring back beavers

The rodents are natural engineers who can restore wetlands.

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Our continent can become more resilient to climate change with the help of millions of environmental engineers who are trained and ready to get to work. They bring back wetlands, which in turn clean and cool the water for fish like salmon and trout, store carbon, and filter pollution. They are well-known for their effectiveness in preventing forest fires all over the world. Environmental benefits estimated by scientists come to nearly $179,000 per square mile, per year.

Additionally, their services are provided at no cost to you.

The North American beaver may be a useful ally in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change across the Western United States.

The benefits of collaborating with beavers to protect our natural environments are widely recognized by scientists and environmental managers. In the West, beavers are crucial to our ability to inhabit, cultivate, and appreciate the region. To protect themselves from predators, these animals play the role of “ecosystem engineer,” constructing dams and digging canals. Their agricultural and construction practices have far-reaching positive effects on the environment because of their manipulation of plants.

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Unfortunately, despite the positive effects beavers have on the environment, we have actively pursued their eradication. The engine that built and maintained North American wetlands was shut down when the European-American fur trade killed hundreds of millions of beavers. An astounding 90% of the state’s wetlands have disappeared just in California. When beaver dams and lodges are in the way, people continue to destroy them.

It’s time to stop trying to keep beavers away and instead open the floodgates.

The thousands of streams that are ideal for beavers can be identified by scientists who study watersheds and by state and federal land managers. There are easy ways to reintroduce beavers to areas where they once thrived before the fur trade and habitat degradation wiped them out along with their wetlands.

The beavers will then be able to initiate natural safeguards. The water from rivers and streams is spread out over a wider area because of their dams and canals. Once the water is slowed, it can no longer carry the sand, silt, and gravel that it normally would. Vegetation that has coevolved with beavers and is more productive when regularly chewed takes advantage of the wet ground and regular sediment deposits to thrive. These actions create and sustain wetland ecosystems.

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The worst impacts of climate change, such as rising stream temperatures, worsening drought conditions, and the fueling of wildfires, can be mitigated with the help of this nature-based restoration. In addition to costing billions of dollars, these dangers endanger the local fish and wildlife.

Beaver-created wetlands along rivers cool the environment by feeding carbon-storing plants and providing habitat for endangered species like steelhead trout. A network of firebreaks, or breaks in flammable vegetation, can be created when water is dispersed across a floodplain. And beaver wetlands aid in the fight against drought because the water levels are increased by the dams, allowing the ground to absorb more water and release it slowly during the dry seasons, preventing streams from drying up.

Our group of state, federal, and university scientists monitored beaver activity along a section of an eroded creek in eastern Oregon. The creek had been neglected for so long that the water was several feet below ground level. The erosion caused the floodplains to become parched, the vegetation along the stream banks to die, and the cycle of drying and degradation in the channel to continue.

In order to restore the creek, the water must be slowed by piling it up so that the channel can once again drain into the floodplain. For beavers to accomplish this on their own, it would be a tall order, so we stepped in to help. We started by manually constructing structures that resembled beaver dams in an effort to slow and disperse the water.

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First-time beavers from different habitats were drawn to this work. Over the course of just a few years, new beavers discovered the area and took over the upkeep. We laid the groundwork, and they took it from there, transforming logs, mud, and sticks into bridges across the valley and networks of canals and ponds. As a result, willows and other streamside plants began to grow. The ground was soaked with water that would eventually seep out of storage, mitigating the effects of drought.

Communities located near streams may be wary of releasing a rogue dam builder for fear of increased flooding. However, beavers are routine-oriented animals, so we can anticipate which areas will have the fewest chances of conflict with humans and the most environmental benefits. Beavers can be enticed to populate vast swaths of wilderness, such as the nation’s forests and other public lands. Additionally, we have devices that maintain beaver ponds at secure levels, fencing or paint to protect trees, and screening to ensure drainage systems are not clogged from the beavers’ work.

The pay is low, but the work is high quality. Assisting beavers in establishing themselves by beginning restoration work ourselves and, if necessary, transporting beavers to the appropriate natural site are the primary expenses associated with beaver-based stream restoration. Instead of spending millions per mile on infrastructure, this method typically costs thousands of dollars per mile.

For this approach to work, we can’t wipe out all of our environmental heroes, either. Approximately 25,000 beavers were killed by wildlife control officers in just the previous year in response to citizen complaints and requests to protect property. Communities would benefit greatly from promoting nonlethal options, such as modifying the environment to accommodate beavers or relocating them to safer areas if that isn’t possible.

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As massive as this undertaking is, so too is the capacity of beavers to aid in its completion. This year, California allocated some of its budget toward the restoration of beavers. There needs to be a concerted effort from conservation organizations in the West to include beavers as a key component of their response to climate change.

The Los Angeles Times published the first version of this story.

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